From editor of Dolly at the age of 23 to CEO of Australia’s leading digital publisher by her forties, Marina Go is here to inspire the next generation of female leaders to take their rightful place at the top. In Break Through, Marina Go, general manager of Harper’s Bazaar, ELLE and Cosmopolitan and the first female chair of Wests Tigers NRL Club, shares an in-depth analysis of the 20 leadership traits that make a successful woman – providing the tools to turn your personal vision of success into a reality.
Read an extract below.
MAKE YOUR OWN LUCK
Leadership lesson: How to make the most of being in the right place at the right time
I have always believed we make our own luck.
Being in the right place at the right time is lucky, as is being born into a well-connected family or having access to family money when you want to start a business. However, it’s how well prepared you are when you get that lucky break that really counts. As a career strategist, I was never going to rely on charm to get me where I desperately wanted to go – which was right to the top.
From the time I was young my father told me I needed to set down solid foundations early in my career. He advised me there was no way around good old-fashioned hard work and study. He was the complete opposite of those people who pin their life’s hopes on winning the lottery. Dad loved the odd gamble at the races, but he never assumed he would win his way to wealth. He worked hard his entire working life and the financial decisions my parents made along the way are the reason they live a comfortable existence in their retirement.
I have built my career on the same principles. My career strategy has been to almost over-qualify for every role I aspire to.
This is also a very female thing to do, I know. But it does mean that when opportunity, or luck, strikes you are ready for it.
It also means that you may, in fact, create your own luck. If you are the standout candidate for a job, then, due to the career decisions that you made in the lead-up, you will undoubtedly be the person an astute organisation taps on the shoulder.
I felt extremely lucky when two years ago, out of the blue, I was offered the chance to run the Hearst business for Bauer Media. I couldn’t believe my luck.
But when I spoke to both the CEO of Bauer Media and the Head of International Licensing for Hearst about the role, it became evident that it was my career choices to date that had prepared me for that role. Hearst was in the middle of rolling out a global digital strategy and they wanted someone with extensive digital and magazine publishing experience who had a deep understanding of female consumers to lead their business in Australia. Apparently I was one of very few people who could tick all those boxes.
My career strategy has been to differentiate myself from the rest of my peers by making different career decisions and then adding postgraduate study to the mix. It’s one of the key reasons I have been able to break through into the executive ranks. But the strategy is equally important when you are starting out in your career.
I always tell the story of Dolly when describing my first lucky break. I had a simple, but focused dream as a teenager: to become editor of Dolly magazine. I worked out the steps it would take for me to get there. The steps were many, varied and definitely not assured. But I never gave up hope. I visualised myself in that role and always believed I would get it. Then I worked hard to reach my goal: a full-time day job and a full-time university study workload in the evenings. Nothing was going to stop me.
Lucky breaks – the who, what and where of landing the dream job of editor of Dolly magazine
The yellow batphone buzzed loudly and I almost fell off my chair. It was every editor’s nightmare – well, at least my editor was terrified of it. It was the direct line to management and if it buzzed, it was one of three people who could make your day – or ruin it: Publisher Richard Walsh, Editor-in-Chief Lisa Wilkinson or owner Kerry Packer.
The editor of Dolly was in the UK on leave and as her deputy I was keeping the seat warm and the magazine running smoothly until her return – planned for later that month.
I answered the phone and murmured nervously, “hello”. It was Richard, my favourite of the three potential callers.
“Can you come to my office? I need to discuss something with you,” he said, with a definite lilt in his voice.
Certain he wanted to discuss the latest issue or next cover, as copy sales had been sliding in recent months, I gathered up my entire desk, virtually, and hurried anxiously along to his office. Even though I was only the acting editor, I was keen not to make any mistakes. When I arrived, Richard’s door was open and he invited me in.
Not one to waste time, Richard got to the point immediately. “Caroline’s not coming back to Dolly and I’d like you to be the editor,” he said with a wide grin. I was speechless, but absolutely bursting with joy inside.
Before I could say anything at all, he added, “Now go and see Lisa so she can talk to you about this.”
I couldn’t believe it. As a 16-year-old living in the suburbs, I would look forward to the day a new edition of Dolly was published – in the way that I now looked forward to buying a new pair of shoes with virtually the same frequency.
Of course I believed I could do it, no question. I’d planned out the ultimate issue of Dolly in my mind many times. As I walked – or was I skipping? – along the corridor to Lisa’s office, I was visualising the new Dolly. I am embarrassed to admit at this point that I was so excited I didn’t even consider that perhaps Caroline might have been pushed. I was so optimistic and, to be honest, completely green and naive in the ways of the magazine publishing world that I assumed she must have decided not to come back from London, which was her home town after all. It was my turn to be in the right place at the right time. I thought it was some sort of sign.
I had missed out on the editor’s job 10 months earlier when the decision came down to two people: Caroline and me. The rumour was that Lisa had chosen me and Richard had chosen Caroline, but neither of them ever actually confirmed that.
My father, one of the most superstitious people on this planet and probably the reason I consulted so many psychics and tarot readers over the years, told me it wasn’t meant to be.
“Don’t worry,” he said knowingly, when I phoned to say I didn’t get the job. “Your time will come.”
For some reason I always believed him when he said that. Even though in my heart I knew he only said it because he believed in me.
Caroline’s approach to the magazine was exactly aligned with the brief she’d been given when hired to edit the magazine: she packed the magazine with all the things she believed teenage girls should be passionate about – the environment, having a career, eating well and not wasting your time on petty things like hair removal or make-up. They were all really great things for young women to be concerned about. The problem was that teenage girls just weren’t interested in that alone and readers had given up on the magazine to the tune of 100,000 copy sales per month. It hadn’t helped that another teenage girl’s magazine, Girlfriend, which had a greater focus on sex and celebrities, had launched around the same time that Caroline became editor.
Thankfully Lisa and I shared a vision for Dolly – of course we did, she was my inspiration for choosing my career.
When I arrived at her office, I knew she was going to ask me to change the magazine. We spent about 30 minutes discussing our ideas and as I left her office, I felt an overwhelming sense of success. Even though I had achieved nothing more than the job title at that point, and I knew it would be tough to lift the sales of the magazine back to the level of its glory days, I had experienced my lottery moment.
I phoned my parents to tell them the good news.
“Good on you, Min,” my dad said, always happy to hear the word promotion.
Dad always called me by my nickname. I only ever recall Dad using my name if he was speaking about me, never to me.
Graeme had decamped to London already and we’d decided to take a break. I was 23 years old with no attachments, flatting in the inner-western suburb of Stanmore with a friend from uni, Helen. That first evening at home after my elevation to Dolly editor was one of celebration – and the first time Helen had seen me smile since waving Graeme off at the airport a couple of months earlier. We cracked open a bottle of cheap wine and got as close to drunk as two women can get sharing a single bottle mixed with girly hysteria – we couldn’t afford Champagne, but clearly we didn’t need it.
For the first six months, seven days a week, I went into the Dolly office, on the fourth floor of the Australian Consolidated Press building on Park Street, and stayed until around 11pm most nights. And I loved it. I actually hated leaving to go home. Dolly was all consuming.
My parents were concerned that I was focusing too much on my career. They didn’t see as much of me as they would have liked. I was still single and it troubled them greatly.
“Look after yourself, Min,” Dad warned. “Make sure you’re taking lots of calcium and vitamin B. It’s not good for girls to get too stressed.”
“Have you met any nice men lately?” Mum would ask almost every time we talked.
“No, Mum,” I’d say, feigning boredom. “Don’t leave it too late,” she would reply. “No-one will want you if you are too old.”
“I’m only twenty-three!” I’d scream down the phone.
It felt as though I was living a double life. I had the daily glamour of a magazine editor’s life, complete with free facials, concert tickets and A-list parties. At night I would go home to my borrowed furniture in the third bedroom of the terrace that Helen’s parents owned. And every other night I would have to convince my parents that I wasn’t becoming too career-obsessed for my own good.
Dolly had only recently been purchased as part of an Australian Consolidated Press buy-up of Fairfax’s magazine group and was located in a corridor between The Bulletin and Australian Business Monthly. I can only imagine how much the journalists on those magazines might have hated the endless giggles that resonated from the Dolly office at any hour of the day. Or the sight of my chief sub-editor lying flat on her back in the middle of the office (which was also the corridor between Australian Business Monthly and the lift, and The Bulletin and the stairs) during one of her creative blocks that could last for up to three days at a time. I found out the hard way that the best way to deal with this crazy individual was to starve her of attention. If I begged her to do her job, she would prolong the agony. If I ignored the theatrics and even stepped over her on my way to the art department, she could be back at her desk tapping away at a story by lunchtime.
I could have, probably should have, fired her immediately but when she was on her game, and to be fair she was most of the time, her work was genius. But she was clearly unstable and responsible for my 20-year obsession with the concept of a workplace nutter. You see, I came to surmise that in every business there was someone who could potentially walk in one day with a machete or machine gun and blow everyone away. In future, I would identify that person in the first week of a new job and then spend each and every day ensuring I wasn’t on their bad side – or even their good side, because that could also end in tears (or worse) if the perceived friendship soured. Workplace relationships are fraught with danger!
A couple of weeks into the job, the batphone rang and it was Lisa, who was also editor of the hugely successful Cleo magazine, asking me to go around to her office, which was on the other side of the fourth floor – the nicer, brighter side, with large windows overlooking Park Street. Her assistant ushered me straight in and I got my first in the flesh sighting of Kerry Packer.
“I’d like you to meet Kerry Packer,” Lisa said. “Who the hell are you?” Packer thundered at me.
Unable to speak, I looked at Lisa and she was smiling. “Marina’s the new editor of Dolly,” she said, completely relaxed in the company of this enormous, frightening man.
“You’re too fucking young to be an editor,” he boomed, staring me down.
Lisa, sensing I wanted to run and hide, said, “It’s alright, you can go.”
As I ran from her office, I could hear his laughter. I was angry and terrified. Who the hell did he think he was making me feel so small and insignificant when I had been working my butt off 24/7 to make him money? Was that his motivation strategy or some weird test of my character?
As well as over-analysing the situation, which I would come to realise could be boiled down to one simple fact – the man was a bully – I spent the next couple of days convinced I would be fired at any time.
One of my first tasks as editor was to hire a deputy. We put an ad in the newspaper and I received about 100 applications, half of which were from schoolgirls who, like me some eight years earlier, just wanted to work at Dolly. I narrowed the field to six and interviewed them across a two-week period. I knew what I needed. My fixation with Dolly was always on the fashion, beauty and features side as a teenager. Unless I was crazy about a particular celebrity or band, I would always skip those articles. As a reader I never read the music reviews, for example. So I needed someone who was celebrity-obsessed, someone who knew who the next big thing would be.
Even though I had never previously managed a team of people, or made hiring decisions, I didn’t even consider that I mightn’t know how to do it. I’m not sure why I felt so supremely confident to just get on in there and do it. I hadn’t experienced the repercussions of a dumb decision yet – perhaps that had something to do with it. Whatever the reason, I was excited about taking action and making key decisions.
I found the perfect deputy in a journalist working for TV Week. From the moment Suellen Topfer walked into my office I know she would be the one. She called me Marini, asked me my star sign (we were both Scorpio with birthdays a day apart – she was exactly one day older than me). Then went on to babble endlessly about boy bands, girl bands, Hollywood heart-throbs, who was gay and still in the closet, who was gay but just didn’t know it yet, who was secretly dating who and, most importantly, who she predicted would be the next big things in Hollywood, on our TV screens and in the Top 40 music charts. I warmed to her immediately.
Suellen, who would become known to the office as “Susy T”, joined the team a month later and made her mark from day one. She was originally from Toowoomba in Queensland and was one of the most open people I had ever encountered. Right away the entire office knew everything there was to know about her sex life – and she expected the same in return. Suellen hassled the writers and fashion team, in particular, about their relationships, relentlessly. She wanted details and dirt and wouldn’t stop until she got something she could work with.
By stark contrast I was an extremely private person, so it frustrated Suellen that she could never get any real details on my personal life. She was keen to know more about Graeme, the boyfriend who I was obviously not yet over, despite his suggestion in a phone call from London that we take some time out. I tried to give her information but I just wasn’t very good at sitting around dissecting the detail of our relationship. While Suellen was telling me I needed to get a real boyfriend (did I mention she could be harsh?), Helen was constantly trying to set me up with friends of her boyfriend. It was never going to work. In the background I was fielding phone calls from my parents who were keen for me to settle down and find a husband.
I was still hooked on Graeme and slightly annoyed that my family and friends wouldn’t allow me to deal with my personal pain in my own way and in my own time.
Suellen and I were complete opposites, which is why we were a great team most of the time, but we shared an obsession with the future. So keen were we to know what our futures would hold, that we often made back-to-back bookings to see psychics. Suellen would introduce me to hers, and I would return the favour. There was a time in Dolly’s life when the magazine was virtually run on the advice of psychics. Interestingly, that was a very good year for sales.
Following each sitting, I would phone my parents to tell them what the psychic told me.
“Dad, she said that your father is my spirit guide and that I should surround myself with gold-coloured fish,” I informed my father.
“Oh,” he said quietly. “Did she say anything else about him?” “Only that he had a message for you to watch your health.
Apparently you have some back troubles,” I said.
“That might be what’s wrong with me. I have some pain there,” he said.
My father’s foster mother taught him to read palms when he was a very young child. He’s been doing it all his life. That, and feng shui. When I was hunting for my first apartment, Dad came with me. He needed to be certain that the location and direction of my apartment was auspicious. We saw many apartments that I really liked (i.e. they were beautifully renovated) that Dad put a black mark against.
“You can’t buy the number four apartment in a building because four means death,” Dad said as I reluctantly walked away from a potential dream apartment. Instead he directed me to another apartment, number eight in its building.
“This is the one,” he beamed. “Number eight is good luck.” “Are you sure, Dad?” I asked, looking into an apartment that was desperately craving a decent paint job, new kitchen and updated bathroom.
“Yes the feng shui is good. You will be lucky here.”
If you weren’t brought up within a Chinese family, where superstitions reign supreme, then you wouldn’t understand why I went along with my dad’s advice and bought the apartment.
Suellen dropped by one day when my parents were visiting and asked my dad to read her palm.
“This is a very bad hand,” Dad said to me, as though Suellen wasn’t even in the room. “She needs to learn how to keep her mouth shut. She will never be able to keep a man.”
I sat there cringing.
“Mr Go, will I meet the man I’m going to marry soon?” she asked hopefully, seeming to ignore his rather abrupt reading.
“Ah…not really,” he said, with a little more subtlety. “You scare men off because of your mouth…but you have a good heart,” he said, before abandoning the reading and changing the subject.
Dolly was land of the have nots and magazines like Cleo was where the haves worked. As the highest-earning member of the Dolly team I was on 40,000 dollars a year in the early nineties, which my fashion editor, a former Cleo fashion assistant, told me was the salary that the staff writer was on at Cleo. But I didn’t care about the money – I was having the time of my life, working on the best magazine in the world with the best people I’d ever worked with. The trouble was that within a company the size of ACP people talk, and my team were starting to learn that in the earning stakes they were the poor cousins.
As their manager it was tough to keep them motivated beyond their first honeymoon year, when the reality of rent, clothing and life – and there was a lot of pressure to always wear the latest fashions, have the right haircut and be up to date with the hottest new bands – generally hit them hard. It is tough to live on fun alone and so I often lost good people to the better-paying magazines, often within my own company – even though I prayed to St Anthony that the better ones would stay.
There was one particularly difficult occasion. Some of my team had been on the same salary for more than two years and it was annual review time. I was feeling extremely hopeful – for myself and for my team – as Dolly’s profit was up and I’d read just that morning that Kerry Packer had won 20 million dollars at Las Vegas. Instead I was mortified to have to explain away the contents of a memo that was delivered to my in-tray later that afternoon. I called the team into my office to announce that as ACP had been doing it tough for the past 12 months, there was a freeze on salary increases. Their faces mirrored my own pain at having to toe the company line, when really I just wanted to say something like, “that tight-arse Packer is screwing us on pay again, we should all resign en masse and see how he can run Dolly without us.”
I could tell that a few of them wanted to swear and/or resign in protest, but they loved their jobs and would ride it out, hoping to be recognised the following year.
My own salary was part of that freeze. I’d worked my guts out to produce positive results and was trying to live the proverbial Champagne lifestyle of an editor – there are expectations after a while that go with the territory, such as grooming and brand names – on a no-name-beer budget. But I wasn’t about to resign or protest either because I truly did love that job.
Luckily there were free bands to see and lots of freebies to be had. None of us had to buy our own cosmetics – except for Production Editor Robbie Johnston – because they arrived in our office from public relations companies by the truckload. Beauty Editor Aileen Marr photographed them for the magazine and then we would have a beauty charity sale – which involved staff buying the products for a dollar each. I felt proud that we then donated the proceeds to a charity. Everybody won.
One afternoon, Suellen received a phone call from one of her favourite music publicists who whispered to her, in hushed tones, that we really needed to see singer Mary-Jo Starr, aka actress Kaarin Fairfax, at a certain Kings Cross nightclub that evening. Suellen and I decided we were in because one thing we both thrived on was the feeling of being able to access situations that anyone outside of our industry could only dream about. That usually made up for any feelings of being financially ripped off by our owner. It was give and take.
When we arrived at the club I noticed a Daily Telegraph photographer, Marco Del Grande, who I’d worked with a couple of years earlier on the Daily Mirror. He had obviously been tipped off too. I felt that something big was about to happen.
About 30 minutes passed and then Suellen yelled, “Look, it’s Michael Hutchence!” An Australian rock god, and the man every girl in Australia would have fallen over backwards to meet, Hutchence had slipped in the side door and the photographers immediately went across and started snapping. But I was too fixated to care – with him was American heart-throb actor Rob Lowe, who I’d had a crush on as a teenager. His crown had already started to slip by then and he was known to be as sleazy as he was cheesy. But that didn’t stop me from grabbing Marco and asking him to take a photo of me with Lowe. Lowe was so off his face – as was Hutchence – that he would have posed for a photo with Jack the Ripper.
It was one of the highlights of my life to date. Never in my wildest dreams as a teenager did I imagine I would one day meet a Hollywood star. Hutchence may have been a bigger celebrity in Australia at the time, but I had met him while working at the Daily Mirror a few years earlier, so getting up close and personal with him wasn’t as big a deal for me. And he was Australian, after all. But Lowe was someone I had dreamed about after watching the brat-pack films of my teen years, St Elmo’s Fire and The Outsiders.
Mixing with the famous was something I got to do on quite a regular basis and shallow as it sounds, I enjoyed it. It made me feel more than a little bit lucky.
Break Through by Marina Go